Hollings backs Powell's budget play


Even Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) seems enamored of FCC Chairman Michael Powell, assuring him on Thursday that his appropriations subcommittee "will want to make sure you have the entire amount requested."

Powell was presenting his fiscal year 2002 budget request before Hollings and other members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary, a forum in the past that often has been an opportunity for Senators to berate Powell's predecessors. And Hollings' regulatory bent clashes with Powell's let-the-market-take-care-of-all approach.

But there was no such criticism from Hollings or any other senator in Thursday's meeting; only concern about topics such as rising cable rates, lack of local telephone competition, whether Internet service providers should be required to pay into the universal service fund and whether spectrum auctioned off by the Department of Defense could be included in DoD's budget instead of being returned to the U.S. Treasury as is usually done.

Powell is asking Congress for an appropriation of $248.5 million, only $29.8 million of which will come from Congress. If Powell gets his way, the rest of the FCC's appropriation would come from increased regulatory fees.

On Wednesday, the companion appropriations subcommittee in the House voted to fund the FCC at $239 million, which is nearly $10 million below Powell's and the administration's request, but $9 million higher than last year's appropriation. Powell did not complain about that decision at the hearing, but did say funding increases at that rate over the next few years would not keep up with the FCC's growing personnel and technology needs.

Other topics addressed during the short session were a federal court's vacating of the FCC's decision to revoke bankrupt wireless company NextWave's spectrum licenses due to non-payment. "It's a mess," Powell said after the hearing. "We're going to work day and night to resolve it. Our highest priority is that the public interest is served and that means getting these licenses into the market as quickly as possible."

Powell would not take a position on legislation moving through the House that would deregulate incumbent phone companies' long-distance data services, but Hollings again was clear. "The whole premise that now we're going to get added services is a big charade, a big straw man to uphold their monopoly," Hollings said.

He also offered the FCC a rare piece of praise for its work implementing the 1996 Telecommunications Act: "The commission has done a good job. You've held [incumbent phone companies'] feet to the fire." - Paige Albiniak